Keep It Simple Activities

My name is Daniel Martin. I am the author of several books for teachers and learners of English as a foreign language and a teacher trainer and speaker at international conferences. I can provide teacher training to your institution via Skype or on site. Here you will find a collection of useful and meaningful activities for the English language classroom devised to help you teach effectively in terms of providing plenty of language exposure and practice to your students with an aim in mind: zero or minimal preparation for the teacher. Enjoy!! 




working with song lyrics: true or false

I am not a great fan of gap-filling tasks to go with songs. If what we are intending is to test understanding or train students’ ears, songs do not make the best listening material, as syllables are sometimes oddly lengthened to best suit the phrases. In addition, one has to deal with the actual “background noise” produced by the musical instruments.

Having said so, I love working with songs and here I am going to share a reading activity in connection with song lyrics, as lyrics are an excellent reading source.

I will be using a classic ESL song: Our House by Madness.

Have students read the lyrics of the song by providing enough printed copies or by having your students look for the lyrics on their phones. Give them about ten minutes or so and circulate to provide help with difficult words. Tell them that they will be doing an activity based on the song lyrics but do not reveal any more details at this stage.

Then set up groups of students (preferably uneven numbers if possible) and ask them not to look at the lyrics anymore. You will be reading some statements and they will have to decide if, according to the lyrics they have just read, those statements are true or not. Ask each student to get two pieces of paper and write a big “F” (for false) and a big “T” for true on each.

Read your first statement and ask the students to choose “F” or “T” and show it clearly by holding the piece of paper and raising their hands. The most popular answer in each group of students will be the group final answer. For instance, in a group of 5 students, if 3 students display letter “T” and 2 students display letter “F”, the group answer will be “T” for true.

Here are my ten statements for this song. You can use them or you can use your own.

  1. The father is wearing pyjamas (F).
  2. The mother is tired (T).
  3. The kids are sleeping (F)
  4. The sister is watching TV (F).
  5. The brother is meeting somebody (T).
  6. The house is in the middle of the street (T).
  7. The house is usually quiet (F).
  8. The house is messy (F).
  9. The father gets up late for work (T).
  10. The mother is ironing (T).

Award one point for each correct answer. For the extra challenge, you can also ask the students to correct each false statement by telling you what the lyrics actually said.

Finally, play the videoclip, if you have a projector and a screen.

making students pronounce “-ed”

As a veteran English teacher I still struggle to understand what makes pronunciation of regular -ed difficult for Spanish speakers. I am not sure if this equally applies to speakers of other languages but it makes my ears bleed when a student reads or says “called” (phonemically transcripted as ” ‘kɔ:lɛd “). Why is that?

One likely reason can be the syllable-timed nature of Spanish. Students perceive “call” as one syllable and “called” as a two-syllable word that requires a vowel being pronounced in each syllable. Another reason may well be the over-reliance of the written form of words when it comes to studying vocabulary. It does not really help either that verbs, in particular, are memorised as isolated words in the infinitive form. For instance, in addition to learning “call” = Spanish “llamar”, students at a A1-A2 level of English should also adopt or create their own sentences such as “I called my friend on the phone but he didn’t answer” (possibly including recorded pronunciation of such). This also presents the added benefit of the general context of getting to grips with connected speech plus gradual incorporation of language chunks or building blocks of language (as in “call someone on the phone”) and, last but not least, inclusion of co-text words (call on the phone/answer the phone).

These mispronunciations also reflect, in a broader sense, the way things are usually taught but not learned. Teaching something does not equal instant acquisition and mastery. In the best of cases, teachers can explain the rules behind pronunciation of regular -ed and hope that the students ace the ensuing exercises from, presumably, the textbook (namely assorting a string of regular verbs into three boxes according to the sound). Time to move on for the students to, eventually and inevitably, make mistakes. But that’s the nature of teaching and learning. Things have to be revisited. Things are, perhaps, taught in linear ways but not learned this way.

So what can we do to revisit and provide spaced repetition? Here’ a couple of tips:

Write or display on the board about 10 sentences with verbs ending in -ed. Have the students drill them and check accurate pronunciation. Then have them play Gianfranco Conti’s “sentence stealer card game”. Basically in this game the students are given four cards each and they choose any four sentences and copy them on the cards. The students walk around and try to guess what’s written on other students’ cards in order to steal them if they are right. More details on this game on his blog here.

We can adopt intervention strategies. So when a student mispronounces -ed, then find an adequate moment to make the correction and then use a site like Youglish to exemplify spoken utterances of it. Youglish is a website that renders occurrences of word searches using YouTube video as corpora. One simply types the word or words into the search box and is presented with the videos. Also, encourage your students to look for their own examples to listen and notice and repeat. For more information on it, read my blog entry Do you youglish.

Tons of listening input, time and practice will eventually take care of it.

categories game with skeleton texts

Here is a vocabulary-slash-writing activity that is based on the popular game Scattergories. In the unlikely case that you are not familiar with the game itself or the nature of it, play the short video below.

And here is how the activity unfolds. Write this on the board (or display on a screen) for the students to copy. Alternatively, you can make copies for the students but, as it is a short text, it is more practical to simply let the students copy.

I know a very (adjective) ………. woman. Her name is ………. . She is from (country) ………. and she lives in (town) ………. . She is a (job) ……….. . She likes (sport) ………. .  She likes (food)………. and (drink) ……….   very much. She loves (verb) ……….  at home and in the summer she enjoys (verb) ………. on the beach. 

Ask the students if they know Scattegories game. Have they ever played it? For beginning or elementary students, you may ask questions in their L1 or you can ask them: – Do you know Scattergories game? Can you play it? Do you like it? Is it fun? Are you good?

You will be giving them a letter of the alphabet and it will be their job to fill in each gap with a logical word starting with the given letter. Give your students about a couple of minutes for the challenge. They can play individually or in small groups. If a student or a group does the task before the two minutes are up, they should say “Stop!” and everybody else will have to put their pens down. In your head you can go through the letters of the alphabet and wait for a student to tell you to stop and then you can reveal the letter of the alphabet that was in your mind at that point. So here’s an example for letter “C”

I know a very clever woman. Her name is Clara . She is from Cuba and she lives in Cairo. She is a carpenter. She likes cricket. She likes cauliflower and coconut water very much. She loves cooking  at home and in the summer she enjoys camping on the beach. 

This is a very adequate text for beginning and elementary students with perhaps the exception of “enjoys” followed by -ing but you can preteach the meaning of “enjoy” and also let them know that it follows the same grammar as “like” or “love”. Alternatively you can use “like” instead but I would personally use the activity to teach something on the side.

Some text-based textbook material may actually present itself well for this type of activity. This would be a slightly more challenging -and fun- activity for the students taken from an Elementary book.

big bang.JPG

Third Edition Solutions Elementary, Oxford University Press. Free sample from publisher here.

And the resulting skeleton text could look something like this.

The (name of show) ………. is a comedy show about a group of friends in (town) ………., California. Leonard and Sheldon are (job) ……….. They work together and they share a flat too. Two other friends from work, Howard and Haj, often visit them. (Name) ……….  lives opposite. She works in a (work place) ………. . She likes Leonard and Sheldon but they are very different from her. A lot of the humour comes from (noun) ………. . It’s a simple idea for a show, but millions of people watch and enjoy it every week. Clearly, people love shows about friends!

Can you think of words beginning with “C” to complete the gaps in under two minutes?

feeling good

Last week I made a wonderful new discovery while I was looking for podcasts to listen to for my daily commute to school. I’m not sure how I stumbled upon it but this is of little matter here. The podcast series in question is BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music, a series of programmes which average a running time of about half an hour each. A song and the history behind it is presented and then a handful of people talk around it and share the emotional impact that that song has had in their lives and why it is meaningful and relevant to them.

From a language standpoint, one gets to hear a myriad of different accents and varieties of English. The sound quality is good and clear and this makes great material for teachers to exploit in the classroom, as the song may be played in class and ensuing work may be done around it. Also, you may handpick a speaker or two and play those recordings for additional listening and vocabulary practice.

As it’s always the case, best ideas find you when you are not at work, so I particularly enjoyed listening to Feeling Good, showcased song in the first programme I clicked on, and as equally enjoyable was the lesson that was unfolding in my head in my drive. Although the song has had many cover versions, it is Nina Simone’s rendition which undoubtedly stands out above the rest. I learned, however, that Feeling Good was originally written for a musical and was first performed in public in 1964 by Cy Grant, the first black man to appear regularly on British TV. His daughter is one of the featured speakers and you can listen to her at 7:05 in the programme (good teaching material there).

So this is what I did. I played Nina Simone’s version for about a minute and asked my students if they had heard the song before. About a third of them had. Then I let them know about Soul Music and how I fell in love with the concept. Even though Nina Simone’s cover still remains my favourite version, I decided to go ahead with Michael Bublé’s, as it is considerably easier to understand and a bit more catchy and uplifting.

And this was the task: “As you listen to the song, write down any words or chunks that you identify or have time for that you can relate to nature”. Just that. Nice and simple.

Then I elicited answers, which I wrote on the board (“birds flying high”, “sun in the sky”, “fish in the sea”, etc.). Some were easy enough for the Intermediate level; some others were considerably more challenging (“breeze drifting on by”), so this makes ideal listening material for mixed levels.

Next I asked them to look for the lyrics on their phones (no need to make copies if they are just going to read the lyrics and they are allowed to use their phones but you may decide to project the lyrics on a screen). Then they had to identify extra words or chunks that they may have missed in the listening part (“breeze drifting on by”, “blossom on a tree”, “dragonfly out in the sun”).

Finally you can have a discussion around what makes them feel good, the kinds of things they enjoy doing in life or you could even tie this in with the general topic of nature or the environment.

Things couldn’t get any simpler or better. It made me feel good. And it’s such a feel good song too. Next, in two weeks’ time, a listening/writing/speaking mediation activity with content from Soul Music. Until then, I hope you are all feeling good.

The Beatles treasure hunt

This time I am going to make an exception and write about an original and fun-filled activity that does require a fair amount of preparation. Yes, it deviates from the zero or minimal preparation nature of the activities that I blog about but it’s already created for you to try it out and decide if you would like to eventually create something of that sort. 

It’s a listening game based on snippets from music videoclips. I decided to choose The Beatles for no particular reason. Well, perhaps there were some underlying reasons now that I start to think of it. The Beatles are well-known, they are one of my favourite bands, I am very familiar with their music and lyrics and most of their listening material is not too difficult to understand.

Step one. First thing, I created a Padlet, which I am a big fan of. Click here to find out more about this digital noticeboard and for some teaching ideas. 

Step two. Then I went on Google and typed “Beatles songs”. From the list I chose different songs and looked for the lyrics. Then I focused on lines from those lyrics that presented easy words to identify at an A1-B1 level of English. I made a note of it.

Step three. Then I went on YouTube and looked for the first song. I copied and pasted the YouTube link on Youtubetrimmer. Youtubetrimmer is a free online tool that allows you to copy and paste a YouTube video link and trim the video. I trimmed the video to choose the section I wanted with the target words. Then I copied the new link for the trimmed video, which was eight seconds long now.

Step four. Then I opened the Padlet again and posted the first note with the link for the trimmed video by pasting it. Padlet embedded that trimmed video on the note. 

I repeated steps two, three and four with the remaining songs and created a listening exercise/game with ten Beatles songs. Most videos range from 8 to 10 seconds of length. 

In class I set up groups of students (3-4 students per group). I opened the Padlet and asked group A  to choose a videoclip. Then I played it three times for them to answer the question that is associated with it (an hour, something you eat, something you drink, 2 jobs, 2 items of clothing, 2 rooms in the house, etc.). I also asked all groups to listen (and write the answer). 

If group A comes up with the right answer, give them one point for that. Otherwise, another group has a chance to get the point with the rebound question. In my case, for rebound questions, I chose an online random number generator on my phone from the Internet (there are quite a few, I just went with random.org). There were 5 groups, so I set the random number generator to pick from numbers one to five and assign a number one to five to each group. This adds an extra element of fun and uncertainty to the activity and keeps all groups and students on task. 

And that’s basically it. If you want to make it more challenging (for higher levels), you can ask the groups to identify more words from the snippets. Let’s say, instead of identifying something you eat, can they also write as many words that come right before and right after? Give them extra points for those extra words.

And that’s it. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but it’s a bloody good game that worked wonders.

Click here to go to The Beatles Treasure Hunt. Click on any image and then click on the play button. If you want to play it again, click away and then click on the image again.

And these are the answers in bold. Immediate words before and after are also provided for the extra challenge for higher levels


  • an hour: if I’d been out till quarter to three
  • something you drink: and sip their lemonade
  • something you eat: “Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice where a wedding has been
  • a type of cake: eating chocolate cake in a bag
  • something a bird has: take these broken wings and learn to fly
  • two jobs: a pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray / Penny Lane the barber shaves another customer
  • two items of clothing: found my coat and grabbed my hat
  • two adjectives: you say high, I say low
  • two rooms in the house: silently closing her bedroom door / she goes downstairs to the kitchen
  • three days of the week: Sunday‘s on the phone to Monday. Tuesday‘s on the phone to me